Friday, May 26, 2006

Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life


Directed by Peter Capaldi, United Kingdom, 1994, 22 minutes.
Source: International Release 3 [DVD 1977]

"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic…”

It’s Christmas and poor Franz Kafka sits alone in his room, an artist on the cusp of greatness, if only he can figure out the end of the line above. (Even if you don't know The Metamorphosis, we are given the full line at the very beginning of the film.) Constantly interrupted by the most normal of folks – a knife sharpener who has lost a little friend, a lovely woman downstairs whose party is making a bit too much noise, the proprietress of a joke shop who has misdelivered a package – Samsa finds himself utterly uninspired by everything around him. (A gigantic…what? Banana? Kangaroo??) After many (many) drafts, Kafka looks down to find a hideous cockroach on his page – which he splats, before realizing that it is his inspiration. But he has taken a life! What is an existential thinker to do? And has he killed the friend of the man with the very sharp knives? Is all lost? Or – like one George Bailey – will his friends come through in the end?

Deservedly winning (or at least sharing) the 1995 Academy Award, this short hysterically evokes both the tone of the tone of style of German Expressionism and the lighthearted romantics of the Frank Capra film referenced in the title. For me, this is an ideal story for a short: the narrative is a wisp of an idea that, if dragged out further, would crumble and lose all its humor. Instead, the film remains fresh throughout. The beginning of the film literally looks like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – but the tone brightens immediately once we see Gregor Samsa wake up as a giant banana and, although the dark colors and chiaroscuro lighting continue, Kafka (played by Richard E. Grant) becomes this comedic persona. (“As Gregor Samsa… blah blah blah…transformed…”)

The ending is also quite interesting. After the expected gathering around Kafka (just like Jimmy Stewart!), we dissolve to a slow dolly into the face of Samsa-insect, who is smiling broadly and singing a song called “Sweet Mystery of Life.” It’s a beautiful tune – and also betrays the filmmaker’s origin as a Scot, not just a Brit. It’s a fascinating touch for a film which otherwise does not indicate a sense of “nationality.”